Monday, November 1, 2010

Retreating to Psychology

My daily reading tends to cycle rapidly between political commentary and sports writing. Today, I read two pieces that demonstrated to me just how much of my life I am wasting on reading other people's dimestore psychologizing about public figures of all sorts. First, here is Maureen Dowd on President Obama:

His arrogance led him to assume: If I build it, they will understand. He can’t get the gratitude he feels he deserves for his achievements if no one knows what he achieved and why those achievements are so vital.

Once it seemed impressive that he was so comfortable in his own skin. Now that comfort comes across as an unwillingness to be wrong.

And here is Bill Simmons on Dwayne Wade:

The overthinking-it-but-maybe-I'm-right explanation: Maybe everyone slowly realized during the preseason, "Good God, LeBron is MUCH better than Dwyane. What do we do? How do we handle this? Do we wait for Dwyane to admit it? Do we ... wait, what do we do???"

Maybe Wade can feel it. Maybe his competitive juices are kicking in. No, no, we're equals. He's not better than me. We're equally good. Look, I'll show you. Maybe it's just been the elephant in the room for six weeks. Maybe deep down, everyone knows the Heat can't take off until Wade has his "You can be chairman and CEO, I'll be president and COO" moment. It goes beyond who gets to take the last shot. It's about the dynamics of basketball. It's about someone emerging as the emotional leader, the spine of the team, the guy who says over and over again, "I got this." And you can't keep saying that if you're looking over your shoulder worrying that someone else is saying the same thing. It's like a fly ball in the outfield. Eventually, someone has to call it.

In case you don't feel like clicking through to the whole pieces, I'll give you a summary. Dowd's point is: Obama was too cocky and believed his own hype and now he's paying for it. Simmons' point is: Both LeBron and Wade are used to being the star, and one of them is going to have to defer to the other if they are going to succeed. Both of these themes are so obvious and well-worn that if they had written their pieces without resorting to pop psychology, they wouldn't have been much longer than those sentences.

Why is psychological speculation so compelling to readers? Sadly, I can only answer the question by resorting to it myself: readers today are overwhelmed by how complex and challenging things have become, so they take comfort in speculation as to behavioral drivers that they can easily understand. We may not be able to figure out an agenda that will both help the country and appeal to Obama's political base, we may not be able to envision an offensive system that will maximize the combined talents of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, but we can presume that we understand what's going on in the heads of famous people, and that makes us feel smugly superior to them. At least I'm not as cocky as the President (or Dwayne Wade).

There are writers who make more substantative arguments: Walter Russell Mead is a great example of someone using historic and strategic insights to help his readers understand what is happening in the world right now, and what might happen in the future if certain trends continue. His recent post about the sorry state of our politics, and the structural weaknesses of both parties that keep them from addressing our major problems, was compelling and avoided cheap point scoring. But as long as we continue to indulge our collective intellectual laziness by analyzing why our public figures don't behave exactly as we'd like, we will remain hopelessly far from finding new solutions to our tired problems.

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